In the West, there are two mainstream models to describe happens when we die. On the one hand, the Christian tradition teaches that each of us has a soul which separates from the body at death and goes to heaven or hell for eternity. On the other, the materialistic model suggests that matter is all that exists, and that our mind equals our brain, so that when we die, consciousness dies too.
Tibetan Buddhism offers a third view. It is that a very subtle form of consciousness remains after physical functioning ceases (see my blog: http://davidmichie.com/how-we-die-a-brief-explanation-of-the-tibetan-buddhist-view/). This subtle consciousness might be regarded as a form of energy and is something that cannot be created or destroyed, but it can and does change form. It is subtle consciousness that moves onto new experiences of reality.
Some key concepts
To step back for a moment, the Tibetan Buddhist view of consciousness is panoramic. One single lifetime in the context of eternity is like a flash of lightening, or a waterfall cascading down a mountainside – extremely brief. (How often people facing death ask: was that it? Is that all?)
Also, although our experience of reality right now may be that of a human being, it may not always be so. Consider all the possibilities of consciousness we are aware of – how many animals there are on planet earth compared to humans, just for starters. Buddhist cosmology sees the earth as being like a grain of sand on an endless beach – that is, there are limitless other possibilities of consciousness beyond those we currently perceive.
Along with these concepts is another important one. Although we believe there to be an external and independent reality outside ourselves with which we interact throughout our life, this notion is flawed. As Erwin Schrödinger, a quantum physicist summed up: “Every man’s world picture is and always remains a construct of his own mind and cannot be proved to have any other existence.” Two and a half millennia before, Buddha explained the same principle in much the same way: “The objective world rises from the mind itself.”
The big picture over time, therefore, is of a myriad subtle consciousnesses taking a myriad different forms, living and dying and being born in different forms again, each time manifesting different experiences of an apparently objective reality, which is actually nothing other than a projection of their own minds.
What is driving this constantly revolving wheel of conscious experience? Mind itself, propelled by conditioning.
The subjective experience of death
Given this very brief overview, let’s return to the question of what happens to our subtle consciousness when we die. The death process ends with our experiencing the most subtle form of consciousness, sometimes called clear light (as described in my previous blog). If we are not familiar with our own subtle consciousness, when death comes we will not recognise clear light as the nature of our own mind, but as an existential void. We will wonder ‘What about me?’ This habitual grasping for a self, our most instinctive conditioning, is precisely what propels us into a state of future embodiment, and depending on what arises in our mind at the time, that embodiment could be in any number of forms – human, animal or other.
But death also presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to break free from the cycle. If we can achieve some familiarity with our own subtle consciousness during life, we can take charge of our future destiny. Step off the wheel. Abide in a state of abiding peacefulness and bliss. With the motivation to help others to achieve freedom, Tibetan Buddhism sets out a path to complete enlightenment.
In short, death presents us with a choice. Not one which will be decided by an external deity. Instead, one which is determined by our own actions. Most beings are unaware that such a choice exists, so unknowingly perpetuate an endless cycle of birth, ageing, sickness and death. But every act of body, speech and mind conditions our mental continuum for future experiences, whether inside this cycle – or out. I have more about this in future blogs.
I’d like to end this longer than usual blog with a reminder of one of Buddha’s best-known suggestions: we shouldn’t believe a word he, or anyone else says, until we test it against our own experience. I would urge you to investigate the nature of consciousness for yourself through meditation. To explore the implications of quantum science on your experience of reality (I’d recommend Einstein and Buddha edited by Wes Nisker, or The Quantum and the Lotus by Matthieu Ricard and Trinh Xuan Thuan). To read the accounts of meditation masters who go beyond death and return to share their experiences (Incarnation by Tulku Thondup).
A human life has been described as being like a visit to an island of jewels – the opportunities we have for personal growth, compared with other beings, are abundant and easy to find. It is up to us not to waste our precious time being overwhelmed by mundane pursuits. We can instead choose to focus on what is of ultimate importance. Each one of us already possesses the potential for freedom and transcendence – it is implicit in the nature of our own minds. We only need discover this liberating reality for ourselves.
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